Alien movies: Horror or Tenderness?
Generally speaking, alien movies tend to go one of either two ways: horror or tenderness. Marc Turtletaub’s “Jules” falls squarely in the latter category — the titular alien who crash-lands in small-town Pennsylvania is a vegetarian, and eats apple slices given to him by his genial human host.
But while the film’s premise will be familiar to anyone whose parents sat them down in front of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jules” replaces the usual child protagonists with a trio of baffled senior citizens, all of whom find kinship with the alien’s outsider status and know too well what will happen if word gets out on his arrival to Earth.
Milton (Ben Kingsley) is struggling with a fading memory and a strained relationship with his adult daughter (Zoë Winters), whose insistence that he see a psychiatrist escalates when he tells her an alien spaceship destroyed his bird bath. When his pleas for help with the small gray alien are ignored by the other townsfolk, Milton invites the injured extraterrestrial, played by Jade Quon, into his home, and the two quickly form a bond. (Despite Jules — Milton’s nickname for the alien — being nonverbal, he appears to perfectly understand English.) Before long, Milton’s neighbors Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris) and Joyce (Jane Curtin) learn of the visitor and, noticing all the suited government officials that have mysteriously arrived in town, decide to help Milton keep their new friend a secret.
Empathy for Elderly Characters
Underneath its ridiculous framing and outer-space high jinks, “Jules” is full to the brim with empathy for its elderly characters and their desire for personal agency. Kingsley’s performance as Milton injects dignity into a character that could have easily (and cruelly) been played just for laughs, and Harris and Curtin provide similar complexities to their respective roles. In Jules, all three of them are reminded of the importance of companionship in their lives, and how isolation in their old age has made each of them desperately cling to what little they have left. It’s a realization that leads Joyce, with Jules’s help, to finally say goodbye to her aging cat, in a funeral scene that’s as heartwarming as it is absurd.
Turtletaub keeps the film’s campier elements to a minimum, preferring to highlight the quaint suburban setting and a lighthearted, understated sense of humor. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” this is not, and despite Jules being a threat to national security, it often feels as though Turtletaub would rather you be curled up in your seat with a mug of cocoa than on the edge of it. But the sweetness isn’t entirely unwelcome — not every alien movie can be “Alien.”
Rated PG-13 for language and some cartoon sci-fi violence. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters.